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A rewarding career in basic medical research
  1. Ian Hart


Professor Ian Hart's interests lie in how malignant cancers are able to metastasise. Having qualified as a vet in 1972, he gained a PhD in veterinary pathology in 1976, and since then has worked in basic medical research, where there might seem to be little or no direct reference to his veterinary background. Here, he explains how his immensely rewarding career has benefited from his veterinary background

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I QUALIFIED from Bristol veterinary school in 1972, and must have had some indication of an early academic ‘bent’ as I was one of four in my year to graduate with honours. Like most young veterinary graduates, I wanted to sample the clinical world of veterinary practice. Wishing to become a proficient all-rounder, I took up a post as an assistant in the mixed practice of Needham and Moody in Stratford-upon-Avon immediately after qualifying. Here, I was fortunate enough to come under the direction of Brian Needham and Peter Moody, two exemplary bosses, who taught me much of what I know about the man-management required to lead a team – whether that team is involved in clinical or scientific activities. Perhaps the most important thing they taught me was to support your employee in public . . . and deliver any necessary dressing down in private! I could not have wished for more supportive or helpful mentors, and I still cherish the memory of their generosity with both their time and knowledge. I hope that I am similarly accessible to my research students and staff.

In 1973, I returned to Langford to do a pretty undistinguished PhD (gained in 1976) with little direct supervision (the person I had left practice to undertake a PhD with quit academic life and returned to general practice three weeks after I started; perhaps a commentary on my qualities as a research student!). Fortunately, I made friends with Professor F. J. Bourne, who later became the head of Bristol veterinary school, and he mentored me through a difficult period. Without his help and encouragement, it seems unlikely that I would have finished my PhD. I did, however, learn an important point from my mainly self-directed PhD; research is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.

At the end of this, the power of serendipity and the influence of ‘who you know’ was brought into stark relief. As an undergraduate, I had been lucky enough to have George Poste – also a Bristol graduate, but then doing a PhD in virology – as my personal tutor. George, who is one of the few veterinary surgeons to be a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), had moved to the USA to take up a research post at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, New York. His field of research on tumour progression and metastatic spread had brought him into contact with Dr Isaiah J. Fidler, an outstanding American scientist and major cancer researcher with a veterinary background, who was looking for a veterinary surgeon with research training. I can only assume that Josh Fidler thought that all English vets with PhDs must be as clever as George Poste, for, on George's recommendation, he contacted me and offered me a post in his laboratory without reading my rather pedestrian thesis. This fortuitous event set the area in which I would work for the next 35 years. Namely, how do tumour cells metastasise and what are the cellular and molecular characteristics that underlie this behaviour?

Photograph: Cancer Research UK

Middle years in research

From 1976 to 1983 I worked with Josh in his laboratory in the Frederick Cancer Center, Frederick, Maryland. It was a time of immense excitement and high productivity, and I learned how to publish, how to design experiments and, in the latter three years, how to run a small research team. Again, I was so lucky to have yet another generous mentor who was supportive in all matters. A successful career in research often is dependent upon spending time in an excellent laboratory where science is conducted at the highest level, and I was fortunate to access such an environment.

In 1983, I returned to the UK to head a laboratory at what was then the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) in London (before the merger with the Cancer Research Campaign, which would create Cancer Research UK [CRUK] an organisation with which I have had an affiliation for the past 28 years). While working at the ICRF I had a lab next to Sir Paul Nurse (president of the Royal Society) and was a colleague of him and Sir Tim Hunt, joint winners of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 2001, so I certainly learned what really good science looked like, and this spurred me on to try to improve my own standards.

Later years in research

In 1993, I left the rather sheltered environment of a research institute to join the university system, and began an 18-year tenure in medical schools. Initially, from 1993 to 2003, I was the Richard Dimbleby Professor of Cancer Research at the United Medical and Dental Schools (latterly King's College, London), and in 2003 I moved to Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, from where I will retire at the end of 2011. Currently, I am head of the Centre for Tumour Biology (about 55 research scientists) and deputy director of Barts Cancer Institute (total of about 350 staff). I chair the biological sciences committee for CRUK (disbursement of around £46 million per annum) and sit on many grant panels and advisory boards (including the Wellcome Trust Veterinary Fellowship scheme).

I also have a fairly heavy teaching commitment, giving courses in basic pathology and in molecular biology to MSc students, and teaching histology and cellular pathology to undergraduates, so my work life is varied and interesting. I cannot think of a better or more fascinating way to spend a working life; ‘paid to play’ as my wife often points out.

Reflections on research as a career

As I come to the end of my working activities, I have been asked to reflect on what benefits a career in research offers to the veterinary graduate. First, I should point out that this is no sinecure. Successful research demands discipline, hard work, attention to detail … and luck. I hope from my brief autobiography it is obvious what a large part luck has had to play in my career.

Timeline of Professor Hart's career.

What are the benefits? For me, the most important aspect is the sheer joy in satisfying intellectual curiosity and finding out something no-one ever knew before. I have never had a boring day at work and this probably is why, in 35 years post-PhD, I have taken one-and-a-half days' sick leave; it's too interesting to want to stay away!

I have been able to use my veterinary degree to help me have a broad overview of the problems in cancer (I was taught path­ology very well and, again, owe much to Professor Donald Kelly and Dr Vanda Lucke, who were such excellent teachers in my undergraduate degree), and feel that I have used more of my basic learning and knowledge than I might have in clinical practice.

This latter point is one that will vary from veterinary surgeon to veterinary surgeon, as I am only too aware of how intellectually challenging general practice can be and how others, more gifted than me, can rise to the challenges this vocation can present. Where I feel research definitely has had the edge for me over what practice might have offered is in what might be termed the ancillary benefits. Thus, I've been lucky enough to meet a number of famous people (including the Queen and Princess Diana) and to have worked with individuals from 51 countries in my ‘home’ lab, and this is apart from collaborations and teaching interactions; I doubt that I would have encountered such variety in a practice setting.

Again, fortunately, I have visited 26 countries, many more than once, to present my work at the expense of others, and therefore have led a ‘champagne lifestyle on a beer income’. However, these perks and benefits do not outweigh the single important fact that a career in medical research is one that is both interesting and challenging, and one for which veterinary graduates are well equipped.

There appears to be a trend for fewer and fewer people from the veterinary profession to go into research and this, I believe, is undesirable. This is because, while veterinary surgeons can gain considerably from a career in basic research, basic research can gain a considerable amount from veterinary surgeons. Our broad knowledge and appreciation of the fundamentals of various diseases can provide an outstanding background for the development of specialist skills. I would recommend my experience to many of those who wonder about the possibility of using their veterinary degree in rather more of a ‘niche area’ than the mainstream.

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